Mormons oblige louder throng of critics at Hill Cumorah gates.
(July 17, 2004) — MANCHESTER — If you have a child in a room with a hot burner, the worst thing you can do is fail to tell the child that the burner will hurt him, Brent Hardy said while people filed past him into the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
“We’re here to tell them that what they are going into is a hot burner.”
He and his wife, Margaret, stood in the path of foot traffic Thursday and passed out at least 1,000 pamphlets that they paid for themselves, just as they paid for their trip from New Mexico.
Like several others handing out pamphlets, tracts and spiritual advice, the Hardys believe that the Jesus of the Bible is not the same as the Jesus of Mormonism, and that the battle of Hill Cumorah, described in the pageant, never occurred.
People have been sharing the same messages outside the pageant for more than 20 years, and though they’ve become louder and more assertive in the past three years, the Mormon church is respectful of their right to free speech.
More than a dozen men stood behind portable fences that marked a walkway for the thousands of people who came to watch the free pageant, which tells the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the hill where the religion began. They came from nearby Webster, Bergen and Buffalo and faraway California, Utah, Florida and Ohio and represented at least four different religious groups. Many used donations, their own money and vacation to travel to Manchester. The Hardys are on their honeymoon.
Local families, many of them Baptist, open up their homes for free lodging for those who stood behind the fences to preach and hand out tracts.
Some carried large signs: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement” and “Jesus Christ created all things including Satan … ”
Some preached loudly enough to be heard several yards away. “Don’t trust the word of man. Trust the word of the God,” said one man as he held up a Bible in his right hand.
Some stood quietly, offering literature and conversation only to those who seemed interested.
“Did you get one of these, sir?” Margaret Hardy asked as she held out a pamphlet.
“We don’t talk mean,” she said. “They take it of their own accord.”
Several feet away stood John Farkas, a Webster man who was once a Mormon. This is the 21st year he has been at the pageant, handing out literature and talking to those interested in learning more about what he calls the “unique, non-Christian teachings” of the Mormon church. But last year his group didn’t participate because of the actions of others who had come to witness.
“I know they love the Lord, but I don’t like the way they show it,” he said as a man with a sign continued to preach loudly.
Farkas admires much about the Mormon way of life and its people.
In fact, the church allows his group to park in its parking lots and use its restrooms. Sometimes Mormons bring refreshments out to him.
So, he gets frustrated when he hears other Christians calling the Mormon faith “filthy” or when he sees them hanging garments with sacred Mormon markings from their signs, as Lonnie Pursifull from Salt Lake City did on Wednesday night.
Before the louder men started appearing at the pageant, Farkas’ group, Berean Christian Ministries, would hand out around 11,000 pieces of literature in the seven days of the pageant. The year before last, he gave away only 4,500 brochures.
“It really dropped the first year the street preachers got here.”
The “street preachers” are part of Street Preachers Fellowship out of Buffalo, said member Kevin Deegan, who has recently preached at the Indianapolis 500 auto race, parades and rock concerts. He has protested at Hill Cumorah for about 15 years, spending some time working with Farkas’ group.
“This is the last thing I’d like to do.” Deegan said. “I’m an introvert. As a kid I had a speech impediment and I was terrified of people. But I feel that this is extremely important. It’s eternal.”
He knows that not everyone agrees with his approach, but “if I spoke in a conversational tone, how many would hear me?”
Pageant visitors do sometimes stop to talk with Deegan and others. This week he had one man who talked with him for three hours. Another time a man talked right through the pageant.
It’s not the conversations that worry the Mormon church. It’s the tension and the possibility of people losing their cool, said David Cook, legal counsel for the pageant and president of the Palmyra stake, a position similar to a Roman Catholic bishop.
The protests at the pageant have escalated in the past three years, Cook said. This year the pageant added the temporary fences as barriers, and area municipalities received letters from the preachers warning not to restrict their First Amendment rights.
“They are looking for a fight. They will get more aggressive as the years go on,” Cook said.
But aggressiveness is nothing new to the Mormons, who faced religious and political persecution in almost every place they settled before reaching Utah.
Even in Rochester, when the Greater Rochester Community of Churches formed, the Mormons withdrew their membership to avoid causing trouble among other members. Now they are “partners in community service” with the GRCC, Cook said.
The main disagreement is that mainline Christians believe the Bible is complete and Mormons believe in modern revelations, “that heaven is not closed,” and thus they believe the Book of Mormon. Most arguments stem from that basic difference.
“The Book of Mormon will always have challenges,” Cook said, adding that archaeologists and DNA experts will always try to find proof. “But I think that’s the wrong approach. It’s a spiritual text. The proof of the Book of Mormon and the Bible is what it’s done for the millions of people who have read it and had their lives changed.”
If you go
What: Hill Cumorah Pageant, a drama based on the Book of Mormon.
When: Final performance at 9 p.m. today.
Where: Hill Cumorah, Route 21, Manchester, four miles south of Palmyra and two miles north of Thruway Exit 43.
Admission: Free. Call (315) 597-5851 or go to www.hillcumorah.org.
About the pageant
Taken from the Book of Mormon, it opens with the prophet Lehi fleeing Jerusalem, taking along ancient religious records and being led to a new promised land in the Americas. On the journey, his sons — Laman and Nephi in particular — clash when Nephi tries to correct Laman and others who are participating in wicked behavior. Once in the promised land, society eventually divides into Nephites and Lamanites. They fight off and on, even after the resurrected Jesus appears in North America. The pageant ends by telling how an angel leads Joseph Smith to discover the ancient records, which are translated into the Book of Mormon.
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